The Master of the Třeboň Altarpiece
hardcover, 288 pp., 1. edition
translation: Morgan, Daniel
published: february 2015
recommended price: 795 czk
The Master of the Třeboň Altarpiece was one of the most important Gothic artists of the international style art in the European context. Scholarly literature, both Czech and foreign, presents various ideas concerning ascribing particular pieces of art to this unknown figure, the date of their origin and their chronology, artistic ideological points of departure of his work and the reconstruction and origin of the "Třeboň altarpiece." Art historian Jan Royt’s extensive scientific monograph on the Master of the Třeboň Altarpiece is an attempt to answer these questions.
The introductory chapters outline the historical events and development of painting in Europe and in Bohemia in the last third of the 14th century, including the spiritual background of the time. The central part is devoted to the artistic and iconographic analysis of works of the Master of the Třeboň Altarpiece and works from his workshop and circle as well as importance in the formulation of the "beautiful style." The scholar focused also on the various hypothetical variants of the hypothetical reconstruction of the altarpiece (including drawings). The book closes with a detailed and critical overview of art historians’ views of the work of this medieval artist.
The appendix, including illustrations, summarizing the results of restoration survey of the panel paintings by the Master of the Třeboň Altarpiece, is the work of Adam Pokorný.
Author Jan Royt approaches the altarpiece of Trebon with sensitivity and caution, as little is known about the master painter. What is certain is that the Archbishop of Prague Jan of Jenstejn is intimately intertwined with both the Trebon Altarpiece and the Madonna of Roudnice; this relationship is explored throughout as the Archbishop commissioned it. The bright colors of the panel are intended to invoke Neoplatonic theology, a spiritual concept that would have appealed to Jan of Jenstejn. Royt draws upon the socio-cultural conditions, historical religious context, and other artworks that were prevalent during the late fourteenth century to arrive at a greater understanding of the work itself.
The first part of the book outlines the history of the Bohemian court under King Charles the IV and his son Wenceslas. King Charles had art serve as a state tool, while amassing an impressive collection of relics. Two years after King Charles's death, the archbishop of Prague, Jan Ocko of Vlasim passed away, allowing for the ascension of his nephew, Jan of Jenstejn. At this time, there was the Papal Schism. The French sent envoys to Prague to convince King Wesceslas IV of the validity of papal succession to Pope Clement VII, which culminated in Wesceslas IV refusing to go to the coronation ceremony. This caused King Wesceslas IV to fall into dispute with Jan of Jenstejn. This animosity reached a fever point with the murder of Vicar General Jan of Nepomuk. King Wesceslas would later be imprisoned after King Sigismund invaded Bohemia. Royt then shows French paintings that heavily affected the courtly style found in the West. The Beautiful Madonna and Pieta with Angels paintings found in the Chartres Cathedral and Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry were important to popularizing the motif of devotional nature. Royt offers in depth commentaries on such works as Jean Malouel's Large Pieta and Melchoir Broederlam's Visitation and Presentation in the Temple-Flight to Egypt.
In part two, Royt explores possible sources of panel paintings from 1340 to 1380, from which the Trebon master drew inspiration. Royt elaborates on the stylistic changes from linear style to the imperial style. There is an intense scholarly debate as to why this shift in Bohemian art is happening, and Royt discusses the various theories throughout the chapter. Royt accompanies this with visuals depicting the development of the panel painting from the natural-istically plump figures seen in Madonna Between St. Catherine and St. Margaret (1360), Master Theodoric's St. Charlemagne (1365), and Prague frescoes like the Baptism of St. Odile (1367) to the Theodoric monumentalizing style found in Emmaus Crucifixion (1360s), then finally to the regal and elongated figures depicted around 1370s, in works like Votive Painting of Jan Ocko of Vlasim (1371).
Part three continues at length discussing the flourishing of the cult of painting found in Bohemia. The Church's paintings served an important role in helping a supplicant pray. It is in the spirit of "Scripture of Laymen" that the ecclesiastic buildings are adorned with altarpieces and paintings. "Let the church be adorned with paintings only as a caution against demons" (81). Some within the ecclesiastical community disapproved like Matej of Janov. But many Christians and those within the monastic community argued that the paintings allowed for the veneration of Christ and mediation from which miracles could be produced through prayer and meditation. The iconoclasts were temporarily stalled. Royt concludes the chapter with the observation that the debates over art within the confines of Church were hardly done as reformers were quick to target art they viewed as overly sensual. Matej argued that the statues of St. Catherine might inspire lust rather than pure thoughts, to which Neidhart von Reuental cheekily argued that there were more obscene images to decry, like "people painting Trojan warfare instead of Christ's passion" (89).
In part four, Royt delves into the finer points of the reconstruction in Trebon Altarpiece and the other works of the Master of Trebon's workshop like Hiuboko Adoration (1380). The panels of the Trebon Altarpiece are made of spruce with pigment of Pozzuoli to get an iron oxidized red, white lead, and gold leaves. The altarpiece came to Trebon when Jan of Jenstejn appointed Abbot Benes to furnish the altars. Some scholars argue that the Trebon Madonna's (1380) commission is no coincidence, because she was intended to be a part of the altarpiece. She is still one of the most iconic beautiful style Madonnas in Bohemia regardless. The other works most commonly attributed to the Master of Trebon are Roudice Madonna (1385), also commissioned by Archbishop Jan. This Madonna served as a prototype for other Roundice Madonna's copies throughout Bohemia and the Cirkcive Panel of St. Christopher (1385), an influential painting for the Theodoric figures in the Chapel of the Holy Cross. Royt concludes by explaining the Trebon Altarpiece's Beautiful style influencing other later works like The Madonna Between St. Bartholomew and St. Margaret (1390) and Epitaph of Jan Jereh (1395).
In part five, author Royt ends with explaining how the Trebon Altarpiece is perceived by art historians. The earliest historian to write about the panels of the Trebon Altarpiece was Antonin Beck in 1840 for his historical piece Antiques to South Bohemia. The altarpiece continues to fascinate a myriad of scholars throughout the centuries. There is a fascinating new branch in art developing and that is in the reconstruction of damaged art. One such art historian Albert Kutal in Gothic Art in Bohemia explains the complex restoration research being undertaken to restore the panels. The processes will in time be refined, but the work previously done was groundbreaking and sets a precedent. The master of Trebon's legacy will always be as the successor to Master The-odoric and his workshop.
This book has wonderful fully illustrated photographs and high resolution detailed images of smaller aspects in the Trebon Altarpiece. There is a plethora of beautiful photographs of Bohemian works (not just of the Trebon Altarpiece), and easily accessible language that makes this an attractive read to the lay public and the art historian enthusiast. Jan Royt's The Master of Trebon Altarpiece sheds light on both the structure of the Bohemian court and ecclesiastical religious issues. The conclusion offers exciting possibilities for further studies in art restoration and the legacy of the master of Trebon and his workshop.
Laura M. Noonan (Pasadena, CA, Comitatus: A Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Volume 47, 2016, pp. 334–336)